Dear Dr. Hwang:
“As a breast cancer survivor, I appreciate pink ribbon awareness campaigns. However, I also feel like all of the cute pinkness has taken away from the seriousness of it.”
Dear Breast Cancer Survivor:
First, “I’m very sorry to hear that you had breast cancer.” However, I’m elated to read that you survived it. At the same time, I imagine it was likely a challenging experience?
Having said this, you bring up an interesting point to ponder. The pink ribbon was originally designed in 1992 to raise awareness that women were suffering from breast cancer. It was also an effort to draw attention to the need for increased research for a cure. A woman whose name is Alexandra Penney came up with the symbol after her maternal grandmother died from metastatic breast cancer.
Now, the pink ribbon has multi-purposes. Some report that the pink ribbon recognizes anyone who has been impacted by breast cancer. The spread of this symbol has reached millions nationally and globally. If you think of all of the people who wear this ribbon, stick it to their bumper, wear the sweatshirt or the wristband, it’s quite amazing.
Some industrial psychologists proclaim that the pink ribbon is like a sound byte in a commercial. The more its presence is recognized, the more the general public will understand how rampant the disease is. When we are presented with images over and over and over again, we are more likely to contribute, see it as a valid cause and investigate efforts to advance research.
Diseases that are unfamiliar to the broader public typically receive less funding and donation money. Even so, a symbol can create multiple realities and ideas about its meaning.
Therefore, it is important to ask individuals who wear it, carry it or advertise it, “What does the pink ribbon symbol mean to you?” While some symbols may seem universal and carry a collective idea, meaning and purpose are often encased within nuanced beliefs for each person who has been impacted.
In adopting a symbol for any disease there is a risk that people may become desensitized to the symbol’s meaning. Therefore, it’s great that you asked this question to remind us that behind every single pink ribbon are many people struggling with or being challenged by breast cancer in a myriad of ways. While it is utilized to increase funding for research or marketing, the bottom line and intention is to help each individual who will have to cope with or deal with a life changing disease. Whether someone survives breast cancer or not, the pink ribbon asserts that as a collective body of people, we refuse to ignore this disease until a cure is found.
Symbols have powerful and important meanings that take on a life of their own. It’s wonderful that you wrote in to remind us all that behind each pink ribbon are real people, who are alive, fighting and needing individual recognition as well.
Women who have been impacted by breast cancer also symbolize how humans are able to overcome the harmful effects of a disease. Symbols are only as valuable as we understand their specificity and multi-layered purposes. Pink ribbons symbolize that we need to find a cure, continue research, so that individuals like you are able to enjoy a full life, which everyone deserves.
Kim S. Hwang, PsyD has a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She is an adjunct professor at the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology.
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